When I decided to become a teacher too many years ago to admit, I was depressed and annoyed by the number of people who counselled me to “get a proper job” – who viewed teaching as second best.
The ensuing decades have proven how wrong they were. I never regretted the privileged position I had of working with young people and playing a part in shaping their futures. I cannot imagine a career with more job satisfaction.
Recently ASCL and Teach First hosted a frank and open roundtable discussion among headteachers, current and former trainees about our profession. We wanted them to share their experiences and particularly to tell us how we can make teaching a more attractive profession at a time when recruitment is becoming more difficult at all levels, and especially in challenging schools.
The discussion was an inspiration which gave me great optimism for the future. Throughout the evening the teachers spoke with passion and enthusiasm about the experience of working often in a very challenging environment, and about their journey as they learned the tools of our trade.
If these are the next generation of school leaders, we have every reason to be hopeful. If I was still a head I would love to have employed those people with their energy and commitment. The passion of these teachers was matched by that of our members who spoke equally enthusiastically about their roles.
But I also heard things that worried me greatly. The pressures these teachers are under are very evident. One spoke of being “overwhelmed” and another spoke of the challenge of working in schools where the turnover of staff was so high that it was difficult to find experienced colleagues to provide advice. We also heard that some of them, when they chose teaching rather than another career route, had been given the same depressing messages as I had all those years ago.
And then there were challenges. As school leaders we need think hard about what deep partnership looks like – partnership that enables teachers to work together using evidence to inform their practice and develop their teaching to meet their high aspirations.
As we hear more about teacher professionalism from each of the political parties as they develop their manifestos, there are some clear messages.
The need for a radical culture change in the entire discourse around teaching and school leadership has never been more evident. The language of “levers” and “incentives” must move to one of trust and collaboration. It must be understood and accepted that the job of teaching is a complex combination of skills, knowledge and relationships. Neither teachers nor students are automatons and things will go wrong sometimes even in the classrooms of the best teachers.
There needs to be a climate where members of the profession can speak openly about these matters. All teachers must have access to high-quality professional development throughout their careers which takes many different forms. This is about creating the time and space to share what works and what has gone wrong and to interrogate the latest research. Above all it is about being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them as they strive to improve.
Instead of pretending that the job of teaching is a comfortable route to mediocrity, we need the very best candidates going into the classroom, with a career structure that recognises the importance of this profession for the future of our society and the next generation of young people. It is a long haul with highs and lows – many more of the former.
I wish all of those young teachers and the thousands of others who are working in our schools every success. Please stay and become the next generation of school leaders. We need you.
Brian Lightman is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit www.ascl.org.uk